Flyers spell the end for underwhelming Rangers, top stars MIA, Shestyorkin hung out to dry, Zac Jones makes NHL debut

This was it. At least for the postseason chances. You can forget it. The Rangers followed up an awful loss to the Islanders with an underwhelming performance in a 3-2 home loss to the Flyers at 33rd and 8th.

Don’t let the final score fool you. This was a game they blew during the first half against a susceptible opponent. Rather than take advantage of the one-goal lead Brendan Smith provided, the Blueshirts failed miserably. Their offensive stars were no-shows. That includes Artemi Panarin. His goal that came with Igor Shestyorkin pulled for the team’s first six-on-five goal was too little too late. Afterwards, the team didn’t apply enough pressure on Brian Elliott, who was excellent to earn the victory for the hated Flyers.

Not only did they suffer another one-goal defeat. But the red hot Bruins no longer lose. Since adding Taylor Hall, Curtis Lazar and Mike Reilly, they’re a perfect 6-0 after blitzing the Sabres 5-1. Boston is now eight up with 11 games remaining. The Rangers have only nine. The last chance was that awful Islander debacle where they should’ve left Anthony Bitetto. Unfortunately, David Quinn made the mistake of sticking with Bitetto over Libor Hajek. That was perplexing when he made it and hurt the team once Matt Martin likely concussed Jacob Trouba.

As bad as Bitetto was, the more pressing issue is the play of the top six forwards. In a move that might not have been the right one considering how well the KZB Line played against the Flyers, Quinn decided to move up rookie Alexis Lafreniere to play with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich. That meant Chris Kreider was dropped to the third line where he played with Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko. The slumping Kreider being on that line is understandable. But the timing didn’t make sense. Neither did elevating Lafreniere over Vitaly Kravtsov, who’s shown chemistry with the top line. It was a miscalculation from Quinn.

The biggest story was 20-year old rookie defenseman Zac Jones making his NHL debut. In less than 10 minutes which included power play time on the second unit, he paired mostly with Ryan Lindgren. This was probably due to Quinn feeling Lindgren would be better suited to help Jones ease in. He got a shift early to get his feet wet and made a quick change. Another questionable move was breaking up Adam Fox and Lindgren. Neither distinguished themselves. However, they’re better together than apart. Without Trouba, Quinn mixed up his pairings including trying the struggling K’Andre Miller with Smith. Hajek worked mostly with Fox. He looked okay after missing the previous two games. Not even the people that cover the team understand why Bitetto got two games over Hajek. Both Mollie Walker and Larry Brooks were critical on the Up In The Blue Seats podcast that featured special guest Brad Park. It was a good listen.

One of the biggest issues last night were penalties. The Rangers took too many getting called for six to hand the Flyers one too many power plays. Even with a strong penalty kill, it was too much to ask. Simply put, you can’t take that many penalties and expect to win. They were too undisciplined. Particularly in a very lackadaisical second period where things unraveled. Only the sensational play of Shestyorkin kept them even through two periods. He faced a heavy volume of quality Flyers’ chances and did his part. The only goal that beat him was of the fluke variety with an Ivan Provorov shot deflecting off Miller before going smack off James van Riemsdyk’s face and in for only his second goal over the last 20 games. That power play goal swung the momentum.

Aside from untimely penalties that killed any momentum they had, you also saw multiple players in the Broadway Blueshirt blow wide open shots that could’ve resulted in goals. This happened several times. Even Panarin had Elliott dead to rights on a power play, but fired his wrist shot right into a desperate Elliott’s glove. Buchnevich had not one, but two opportunities. The better chance came after Elliott denied his first bid. But his rebound was too low and easily shut down by the Flyers netminder. You also had Brett Howden misfire a shorthanded shot from Kevin Rooney wide. I can’t explain Kakko anymore. He was all set up on a power play. Of course, he flubbed the shot sending it wide. The FINNish isn’t there yet. He remains stuck on six goals.

The game didn’t start out badly. Unlike the grinding style the Islanders play, the Flyers play a much more wide open skating game under Alain Vigneault. They’ve really struggled since March. A point that was made by the MSG broadcast. When you have guys like Van Riemsdyk, Travis Konecny, Kevin Hayes and Scott Laughton in funks, you can’t open the door. While the latter two didn’t get on the scoreboard, it felt like Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti were rooting for it. I can’t understand why they must mention the slumps of the opponent. Sure enough, it worked for Van Riemsdyk, who did in the Blueshirts. They jinxed their own team. Holy moly.

In a first period that saw the two teams combine for 25 shots (NYR 14 PHI 11), each goalie got the job done. They sure were on throughout. Elliott and Shestyorkin did their part. Otherwise, it would’ve been much higher scoring. You also had some close calls with Kakko and Chytil hitting the goalpost. On the other end, Flyers first round pick Wade Allison showed a nose for the net. He forced Shestyorkin into two superb saves. Allison was good in only his fourth NHL game. If he plays the way he did Thursday night, he’ll do well.

With the teams skating five-on-five, Kakko got a step on Phillipe Myers, who reached in with his stick and slashed him behind the Flyers net. That handed the Rangers the game’s first power play. Although they didn’t score during it, enough momentum was generated. That led to the first goal from offensive source Smith. Five seconds after it expired, Chytil and Miller were able to get the puck over for a good Smith shot that beat a screened Elliott at 9:55. The goal doesn’t happen without Howden going to the net and taking away Elliott’s vision. He jumped up and the Smith shot went through his legs and in. It was his fourth. The trouble is like Tuesday, he was the most noticeable player offensively. I like what Smith brings. But he can’t be their best player.

Any chance to increase the lead was turned away by a sharp Elliott, who finished with 33 saves on 35 shots to earn the game’s First Star. He deserved it. His best save was the one on Panarin later. However, the pair of stops he made on Buchnevich from a dangerous area were superb. He also denied Panarin twice late in the first.

Shestyorkin had two good saves on a Flyers power play with Smith off for interference on Claude Giroux. After the Howden near miss shorthanded, he went to work by stoning Allison in front and stopping Sean Couturier. Previously, he had to contend with an Ivan Provorov shorthanded bid following a Zibanejad turnover. I like how he challenges shooters. When he’s not coming out of his crease to play the puck like an extra defenseman, Shestyorkin is very composed in net. Unfortunately, he was hung out to dry despite making 33 saves on 36 shots.

One player who again was noticeable when he was on the ice was Kravtsov. Always very active, he had a nice takeaway with time winding down in the opening period. Even though it didn’t lead to a last second attempt on Elliott, Rosen praised Kravtsov for the effort. I don’t see why he isn’t getting more shifts. He makes the most of what Quinn gives him. Of course, all the special teams didn’t help which explains why Kravtsov only received 10:14 all at even strength. It’s interesting how he wound up a plus-one in a game where the top guns couldn’t get much done. I feel Quinn should’ve bumped him up. Not just for one shift with Zibanejad and Buchnevich either.

In the second period, you had some questionable officiating that really left me wondering what game they were watching. Of course, there were missed penalties. But that paled in comparison to ruling that Kreider was beaten out for an icing. He slowed down, but sure looked like he won the race. It’s no touch icing. Equally as mystifying was an icing the Rangers didn’t get. It sure looked like they should’ve gotten it. Maybe the four stripes need their eyes checked. The no touch icing rule is one I’ve never been a fan of. I understand why it’s there. But there are too many WTF moments that make fans question what is an icing and what isn’t.

Penalty trouble began when Kreider received an iffy holding minor on Nicolas Aube-Kubel. Shestyorkin made another splendid save on an Allison tip in. But while they were on the power play, Smith’s hustle led to a perturbed Konecny taking a hooking minor to even it up. That meant some four-on-four. Eventually, the Rangers had an abbreviated power play. Both Panarin and Zibanejad were stopped by Elliott, who was tracking the puck well. He also had a good stop on Colin Blackwell earlier with the overachiever waiting too long before pulling the trigger. That summed it up.

By the halfway point, Jones had three shots on net. He definitely is a good skater, who can create offense through transition. He possesses more speed than Miller, who had another tough one. He needs work on his skating and using his big frame. Jones looks to have a higher ceiling offensively. He sure knows how to get his shot through. There were moments where he had to make quick recoveries defensively. He didn’t hurt himself in the 9:45 he received.

A somewhat tough minor on an incensed Fox changed the game. He was called for hi-sticking Jakub Voracek after making contact with his neck. My issue with the call was how easily Voracek went down. It was pathetic. He took a dive that would’ve made Greg Louganis proud. I honestly felt it should’ve been two and two. Sure. It was a penalty on Fox by the rulebook. But Voracek embellished and I didn’t care for it. Predictably, that allowed the Flyers to tie the game.

Only 13 seconds elapsed when the weird scoring play occurred. On what can best be described as an accident that went in the Flyers’ favor, a Provorov shot went off Miller and then banked right off Van Riemsdyk’s face at the side of the Rangers net. The puck took a funny bounce to sneak by a visibly shocked Shestyorkin, who had played very well. Of course, that would be the one to beat him when he was snatching perfect redirections with his lightning quick glove. He really can flash the leather. The Yankees and Mets should take note.

As the dreadful second moved into the final few minutes after the Flyers tied it, one thing was clear. The Rangers were getting killed on face-offs and their defensive structure was nowhere to be found. How many times can defensemen get caught up ice leading to odd man rushes? Shestyorkin was stopping everything. It even included a penalty shot in the final minute when Hajek hooked Joel Farabee from behind. The right call. But Farabee was given nothing by a very cool Shestyorkin, who patiently kicked away the backhand attempt. It was the first penalty shot he’s faced in the NHL.

Surely, the Rangers would get momentum from such a clutch save in the third. Not so fast. Instead, the Flyers continued to apply pressure on the defense. They were all over our team, who played too loose in front of Shestyorkin. By that point, Quinn started mixing and matching his lines. Nothing seemed to work with Elliott emulating Bernie Parent.

The difference was the continued ineptitude of the Blueshirts to stay out of the box. On just a long shift where he had issues along with his teammates, Miller finally took a bad penalty when he hi-sticked Couturier and drew blood. That meant a double minor for the Flyers.

After they killed off the first half, the Rangers lost a defensive draw clean. On it, Hayes won it back to Provorov for a point shot that a wide open Van Riemsdyk redirected in for his second of the game at 10:29. On the play, he beat Lindgren to the front of the net to get the greasy goal that proved to be the game-winner with 9:31 remaining.

Less than four minutes later, Voracek dusted the Rangers when he took a Couturier lead pass and got behind the defense for a point blank opportunity. He made no mistake rifling in a wrist shot past Shestyorkin for a 3-1 Flyers lead with less than six minutes left. Shayne Gostisbehere drew the other helper on another dreadful play where the Rangers looked like chickens without heads. Jones and Hajek were on for the goal along with Zibanejad, Lafreniere and Buchnevich. It was ugly and finished off the Blueshirts.

Although they got one back thanks to a shocking well executed face-off play started by Zibanejad to Fox who moved the puck across for a Panarin rocket with two minutes exactly left in regulation, they never threatened Elliott following that goal. It was bitterly disappointing. What a tease. The Flyers defended well enough in front of Elliott to get the win.

There isn’t anything else to add. This was not what you wanted to see. Usually, this team finds a way to respond to bad losses. And the game the other night was a total embarrassment that exposed them. As fun as the Rangers are to watch, they can be grinded down. That has to change starting next season which is expected to be around Oct. 12.

With nine games left including the rematch at MSG tonight for the eighth and final meeting with the AV Club, it should be about seeing what the kids are. They’re too far behind to make the playoffs. I want to see the kids have an increased role. That’s what it should be all about now. We’ll see what they bring in the rematch.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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